Helen Pickett and James Bonas on Creating Emma Bovary
By Caroline Dickie
July 20, 2023
Helen Pickett. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
With Madame Bovary, first published serially in 1856, French writer Gustave Flaubert created a landmark work of literary realism and a famously complex protagonist in Emma Bovary, an idealistic young woman whose desire to transcend her dull marriage ends in tragedy. Emma’s choices – overspending, infidelity, neglect of her child – tread the line between selfishness and self-preservation and have long made her a divisive figure, as likely to be defended as condemned. Brilliantly, choreographer/director Helen Pickett and director James Bonas have called their new work for The National Ballet of Canada Emma Bovary, liberating Emma from the marital status that eclipses her. This is a ballet from Emma’s perspective; it brings the woman out from the marriage to share her own story.
Pickett and Bonas, who have formed a theatrical partnership and work closely together, are fascinated by the spectrum of Emma’s experience as a country doctor’s wife consumed by dreams and unmet desires – who is tireless in her search for beauty yet unable or unwilling to anticipate the consequences of her disregard for social norms. Emma’s dilemma, to play the role expected of a woman in her position or to reach (dangerously) for something more, is still relatable well over a century later.
Heather Ogden and Ben Rudisin in rehearsal for Emma Bovary. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
Pickett is an ideal creator to adapt Emma’s story for dance. She is a world leader in narrative ballet, a field dominated by men, and she has a successful track record introducing strong female roles to dance. In The Crucible, for example, Pickett’s award-winning adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, she brings new subtlety to the character of Abigail Williams, who is generally thought of as a straightforward villain.
Human stories with a strong emotional arc appeal to Pickett and Bonas, and they often draw from theatre and literature. Pickett’s father, who is a writer, was the first to suggest the idea of adapting Madame Bovary for ballet and she says the clarity and power of Flaubert’s writing was an inspiration. Pickett and Bonas, who both share an interest in cinematic storytelling and multidisciplinary performance, approached the adaptation in the way of a film, with a formal treatment. Emma Bovary features an original score by Pickett’s long-time collaborator, Peter Salem.
Tirion Law and Siphesihle November in rehearsal for Emma Bovary. Photo by Karolina Kuras.
Pickett also likes to pursue new collaborations and has chosen to work for the first time with Canada’s Michael Gianfrancesco on sets and costumes and Bonnie Beecher on lighting. Bonas brought two of his long-time collaborators to the production, Grégoire Pont on animation and Anouar Brissel on projection design. This distinguished team has designed a visual landscape that expresses Emma’s inner conflict and the way her expectations collide with reality. Domestic scenes are dark with a disquieting sense of emptiness (Charles, the boring husband who never truly sees or challenges Emma, is virtually a spectre in a monotonous grey costume). Colour returns when Emma’s imagination is firing, as at the first of two balls in the production, which offers a taste of luxury that becomes a touchstone for the “something more” Emma seeks. When Emma submits to the siren call of material goods, trying to buy her way to happiness, Pickett and Bonas represent these purchases as chairs. True to their domestic associations, the chairs eventually prove overwhelming.
The Bovarys’ only child, Berthe, has long been a barrier to a fully sympathetic view of Emma because her actions ultimately consign Berthe to a life of poverty. Pickett and Bonas negotiate this by representing Berthe as a large puppet – depersonalizing enough to permit empathy for Emma without minimizing the extent of the child’s suffering (the dancers manipulating the puppet can literally pull her apart). It is one of many insightful touches that make Emma Bovary a consistent and dramatic work that finds the light in a profoundly human story.
Emma Bovary is onstage November 11 – 18, 2023 with Passion.